Executives and Legislatures: Britain and the USA


There is a longstanding debate in the mainstream political arena over which political structures – executive or legislative – best accomplishes the reasonable policy outcomes as envisaged by traditional as well as contemporary democratic theorists. Interestingly, there exist differences of opinion and practice within similar political systems, implying that different regimes or countries do implement similar political structures differently, and do achieve polarizing outcomes as far as policy design, development and implementation are concerned (Blick & Jones, 2010).

This paper attempts to critically compare and contrast the executive and legislative structures and processes of Britain and the United States with a view to addressing some pertinent issues about the systems, including their advantages and disadvantages, how different agents of socialization led to the development of these systems and the effectiveness of the systems in generating policies that best meet the needs of the populace.

Executives and Legislatures: Comparing Britain and the United States

Political analysts have identified minimal similarities and obvious variations between the structures of the executive and the legislature when a comparative analysis of Britain and the United States is done. Among the similarities, it is indeed true that both structures have a parliament charged with the responsibility of legislating laws. Indeed, it can be argued that both political structures have bicameral parliaments, with the British parliament comprised of House of Lords and the House of Commons, while the U.S. parliament is called the Congress – also with two houses, namely the House of Representatives and the Senate (Almond et al., 2008).

Owing to these structures of their legislatures, Britain and the U.S. have been credited for developing and passing strong legislation to govern their operations by virtue of the fact that new laws must garner a majority vote in both houses (Cohen & Middleton, 2008).

Stunning differences arise when the executives of the two countries – Britain and the U.S. – are compared and contrasted. In Britain, for instance, the party which manages to garner the most seats in the lower house ostensibly becomes the government, with its party leader becoming the Prime Minister (Almond et al., 2008). This structural arrangement illuminates a conceptual disadvantage – that there is no separation of powers between the executive and the legislative in Great Britain. Additionally, it is worth noting that some members of parliament are appointed to head ministries and control certain departments under the British political system, a further pointer to the fact that separation of powers in Britain is nonexistent.

On the contrary, executive actions in the U.S. are separate from legislative processes, and the people, rather than parliament, elect their own president, who then elects independent people as secretaries to the cabinet (Heffernan, 2005). One obvious advantage of such a system is that the president, who heads the executive arm of the government, does not become unnecessarily bogged down by the legislature when addressing critical concerns facing the country. This notwithstanding, it is clear that the center of power in Britain is the legislature, while the center of power in the U.S. is the executive, and that the British prime minister is directly accountable to the legislature, while the U.S. president is directly answerable to voters (Blick & Jones, 2010).

When the above structural arrangements are evaluated in terms of advantages and disadvantages, it becomes clear that the executive system practiced in the U.S. provides the incumbent with broad-based legitimate power by virtue of the fact that he is directly appointed by people. This is a strong advantage for the U.S. president. On the contrary, the British prime minister suffers from the disadvantage of singing to the tune of fellow members of parliament since it is the legislature rather than voters that put him or her in a position of power (Heffernan, 2005). It is this distinction that leads political commentators to argue from the standpoint that America uses the presidential system – where the executive wields real political power; and Great Britain utilizes the parliamentary system – where the legislature controls political power.

The executive-oriented political dispensation, as is practiced in the U.S., is very clear on the principle of separation of powers among the three arms of government – executive, legislative, and judicial (Heffernan, 2005). The checks and balances, which are predominant in this type of political system, ensure the sharing of some powers among the three branches. For example, Congress can pass some laws, but the incumbent president, in his wisdom, can decide to veto such laws.

Consequently, the apparent advantage arising from such an arrangement is that the executive, or any other branch, is unable to abuse power due to the fact that each structure is able to monitor and check the other. However, the doctrine of separation of powers has been accused of occasioning political gridlock and political volatility, particularly in a situation where the incumbent president and the legislative majority come from different political parties.

In a parliamentary system, as is practiced in Britain, the legislature wields supreme power, and no separation of powers is clearly evident (Almond et al., 2008). The prime minister, who is the leader of the government, is selected by members of the legislature (assembly) from among their own number and, in reality, is the head of the political party with the majority in parliament (Heffernan, 2005). It, therefore, follows that the prime minister must remain loyal to parliamentarians, particularly those from the majority party in the legislature, or risk losing their support – a situation that often leads to his or her resignation.

Although advocates of the legislative system as practiced in Britain argue that such an arrangement encourages and reinforces party politics while ensuring high-performance standards for fear of being thrown out from leadership duties (Blick & Jones, 2010), it is generally felt that the system sparks an inherent disadvantage in that it may be prone to underhand tactics, arm-twisting, and negative political influence owing to the fact that the prime minister will always strive to maintain loyalty with his fellow parliamentarians, failure to which he or she is shown the door (Heffernan, 2005).

Additionally, and in terms of political stability, it can be argued that the U.S. president, by virtue of exercising a presidential (executive) system of governance which portends a fixed term of service, may provide more stability than a British prime minister, who can be dismissed from service at any given time provided he or she fails to garner the support of the majority in the legislature. Stability issues notwithstanding, this particular advantage for the presidential system may become a disadvantage when the assertions are evaluated using a different paradigm. For instance, it may become extremely difficult for the U.S. to remove an unsuitable president from office before the expiry of his or her term. However, it is exceedingly easy to remove a non-performing or corrupt British prime minister from office due to the provisions of the legislative system of government (Heffernan, 2005).

Agents of Socialization

As observed by Heffernan (2005), there existed a multiplicity of agents which facilitated the successful creation of the ‘executive’ and the ‘legislative’ political dispensations, and their successful transformation from one generation to another. Holistically, agents of socialization in a political setup refers to individuals or institutions by which and the setting in which the processes and structures of political socialization are attained (Cohen & Middleton, 2008).

Going by this definition, it is safe to argue that the family, school system, church, friends, and the mass media were all critical in the establishment of the above named political structures. To illustrate how these structures were formed using the church or religion as the agent of socialization, it is evident that Catholics projected liberal economics and social conservatism, while Protestants projected conservative economics and social justice. It, therefore, follows that in areas where Catholics were the majority, the political dispensation leaned towards liberal economics and social conservatism.

Equally, the political dispensation leaned towards conservative economics and social conservatism in areas where Protestants were predominant. The family as an agent of socialization also played a significant role in the creation of the discussed political structures, mainly due to the fact that families hold similar political views, and that children hold similar party and policy affiliations as parents (Heffernan, 2005). Schools were effectively used to pass on deep-seated political values from one generation to another, ensuring the successful creation of diverse political dispensations, including those discussed herein.

Policy Issues

The executive political system is, in my view, best suited to produce a policy that best meets the needs, demands, and expectations of the populace. Political commentators are in agreement that a political system that uses the legislature as its central tenet may not be in sync with the needs of people on the ground by virtue of the fact that such a government is instituted by parliament and lawmakers rather than the voters on the ground. As such, legislative-led governments, as is the case in Great Britain, may end up producing policies that do not in any viable way reflect what is happening on the ground (Blick & Jones, 2010).

What’s more, such governments lack central coordination when producing policies, implying that they may end up either producing defective policies or replicating the policies that have already been put in place. To remedy the situation for such legislative-led governments, it is believed that central coordination in policy development can be holistically attained by binding ministers together through shared cabinet processes as opposed to following a hierarchy controlled from the top by a single prime minister (Blick & Jones, 2010).

Reference List

Almond, G.A., Powell, G.B.J., Dalton, R.J., & Strom, K. (2008). Comparative politics today: A world view, 9th Ed. New York, NY: Longman. Web.

Blick, A., & Jones, G. (2010). The centre of central government. Public Policy Research, 17(1), 29-35. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier Database. Web.

Cohen, R., & Middleton, J. (2008). Comparative political systems: Studies in the politics of pre-industrial societies. New York, NY: Natural History Press. Web.

Heffernan, R. (2005). Why the prime minister cannot be a president: Comparing institutional imperatives in Britain and America. Parliamentary Affairs, 58(1), 53-70. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier Database. Web.